Monday, April 24, 2017
2017 Corporate Trailblazer Award
Dr. Wanda M. Austin interacts with winners of The Aerospace Corporation’s high school science competition in 2016. A champion of STEM education, she will accept the Corporate Trailblazer Award at Leadership California's Legacy of Leadership celebration on April 24, 2017 in Los Angeles.
DR. WANDA M. AUSTIN
Dr. Wanda M. Austin is an American businesswoman who is internationally recognized for her work in aeronautics and systems engineering. She is co-founder of MakingSpace, Inc, a systems engineering and leadership development consultant and motivational speaker.
She is the former president and CEO of The Aerospace Corporation, an independent, non-profit organization dedicated to the application of science and technology toward critical issues affecting the nation's space program. From January 2008 until October 2016, Austin led the organization's 3600 employees and managed annual revenues of $950 million at 17 U.S. locations. As the sixth president, she was the first woman and the first African American in the 57-year history of the organization.
Austin served on the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology until January 2017, advising POTUS on science, technology and innovation as keys to forming effective U.S. policy. Austin is currently a member of the Defense Science Board and the NASA Advisory Council. She is an honorary fellow of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, a counselor of the National Academy of Engineering and a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. She is a trustee for the University of Southern California and on the Board of Directors for the Chevron Corporation.
Austin is committed to inspiring the next generation to study the STEM disciplines and to make science and engineering preferred career choices. Under her guidance, The Aerospace Corporation undertook initiatives in support of this goal, including participation in MathCounts, U.S. FIRST Robotics, and Change the Equation.
The Legacy of Leadership Awards is an annual event, created to recognize leaders whose achievements have made a positive difference for the people of California.
Aeronautic Engineering Leader brings People and Systems Together for Mission: STEM Success
by Carol Caley
April 17, 2017
Dr. Austin, you’ve been a systems engineer and also a corporate leader. A systems engineer needs vast technical knowledge, a president/CEO requires skill in making connections and cultivating relationships. Can you help us understand how these two roles overlap and synchronize? What leadership principles guided your accomplishments in both?
What attracted me into engineering, systems engineering in particular, was having an impact on society, solving complex problems, and recognizing that any problem you look at is multidisciplinary. There are lots of different aspects that have to work together. You need to understand how a change on one side will impact what’s happening on the other.
When you design a satellite, for example, if you change the weight, that impacts how much power you need. If you change the material, that may change the thermal properties. So you have to step back and think before you jump in with a solution.
So you step back to see the big-picture issues when you’re engineering something, right? And of course, people are a crucial part of any system.
Yes, getting people to work toward a common goal means making sure everybody understands the goal. Then you have to help them see how they all contribute to that solution, then figure out a way for them to work together seamlessly. You’re systems engineering complex technical problems, but as a CEO, you’re systems engineering complex organizational challenges. It’s not only about getting people to work together, it’s about making sure you have the infrastructure and organizational support you need for people to be successful.
Going back to the leadership principles you’ve followed, which ones guided your accomplishments in both areas?
One thing I point to is transparency. It’s important that you earn the trust of your team, and share with them what you need them to do. People don’t wake up in the morning and say, how can I screw up or be disruptive? But they do ask me, what am I supposed to be doing?—or what the priorities are. You cannot over-communicate about that.
So it’s communication, above all. Transparency depends on that?
Yes, and you have to be willing to listen. People frequently think a leader has all the answers. If the leader is smart, that leader knows they’ll get the best answers from the team, then put them together in a way that will help us solve a problem together.
Jackie Lacey said to me, you’ve got to be an ‘aerobic listener.’
She’s exactly right. A lot of people want to jump in and get to the solution, just get to the answer. I say, wait a minute, let’s take time to think about the problem and get to a better answer.
So, communication is key, listening is key. But it is also about figuring out what you’re not going to do. There are usually more things on your plate than you can effectively do well. It’s key for leaders to step back and say, OK, I’d like to do all these things, but I don’t have the resources, I don’t have the time, I’ve got to figure out my priorities. What is it that I absolutely have to get done?
So it’s a strategy of not-doing, then?
It’s a strategy of making sure you’re doing the most important thing. It’s tempting to say, oh, this is easy, this will be quick, we can do this. You don’t realize you’re siphoning off resources and maybe missing an opportunity to do that which is most important, most transformative, or most enabling for other good things to happen. You’re distracted by having too many things on the radar screen.
||“In satellite engineering, once you launch something into space, you don’t get to say, ‘oh, we didn’t get that quite right, let’s change it.’ It’s gone.”
Women do tend to over-commit, believing they can multitask and take care of everything, when in fact it just dilutes what your main mission and goals need to be.
It’s the dilution that I’m worried about, which is: you end up doing a “C” or a “B” job, on something very important, when you could have done a first-class job, an “A” job.
Is technical and scientific leadership more challenging than leadership in, say, politics or the arts?
There are significant consequences on both sides of that equation. In my business, it’s known to be a high-consequence, high-risk, but high-payoff challenge. In both science and politics, you have a lot of unknowns—you arm yourself with the best data, the best information, the best tactical expertise that you have. But in the end, you have to assess the risk, and try to decide if you’ve mitigated it.
So the challenge is the unknowns?
On the science and engineering side, you’ve got thousands of people working on projects, and lots of different parts and materials and new technologies you’re trying to integrate, so there are lots of unknowns to account for as you go forward. In satellite engineering, once you launch something into space, you don’t get to say, ‘oh, we didn’t get that quite right, let’s change it.’ It’s gone, so you have to live with it.
In politics and the arts, the unknowns are people. You don’t know how people are going to respond, how they will act, or whether they will act, what emotional issues will really energize people, and which ones won’t. As you look across the world in recent elections, people have been surprised. READ MORE